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Victoria Azarenka’s medical timeout causes controversy at Aussie Open

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Victoria Azarenka faces Sloane Stephens at Australian Open

Victoria Azarenka receives medical attention late in the second set Thursday. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)sl

Victoria Azarenka made her second straight Australian Open final by defeating Sloane Stephens 6-1, 6-4, but her controversial use of a 10-minute medical timeout before Stephens was to serve to stay in the match has everyone talking.

After breaking to go ahead 5-3 in the second set, Azarenka served for the match and choked. And choked. And choked. She earned five match points and squandered five match points with nervous groundstrokes, particularly from her forehand. She grew more and more frustrated with each missed opportunity, swatting at balls angrily, letting loose ear-piercing shrieks and exhibiting the worst body language we’ve seen from her in quite some time. Stephens eventually broke her serve. That’s when things got complicated.

With Stephens about to serve to stay in the match after the changeover, Azarenka called a medical timeout that lasted 10 minutes off court and allowed her to regroup. There was no official word at the time as to the medical reasons for her call to the doctor, though she was seen pointing to her chest during the evaluation period. After the 10-minute break, during which Stephens just sat at her bench, Azarenka came out and promptly broke for the win.

Asked after the match why she needed the medical timeout, this was Azarenka’s response:

“Well I almost did the choke of the year right now. At 5-3 having so many chances, couldn’t close it out. I’m glad I could just turn it around. I just felt a little bit overwhelmed realizing that I’m one step from the final and nerves got into me for sure.”

Choke? Overwhelmed? Nerves? I’m not sure any of those constitute illnesses that justify a medical timeout. In fact, not too many people did. Here’s how former players, commentators and pundits reacted to this perceived piece of gamesmanship:

Interviewed by Tom Rinaldi for ESPN, Azarenka said she couldn’t breathe.

“That game, I don’t know, I had chest pain. It was like getting a heart attack or something out there. I just needed to make sure it was okay because I really couldn’t breathe.”

Stephens said the break didn’t put her off, though it can’t be denied that she came out flat in that final service game. Stephens, who shares the same agent as Azarenka, dismissed the incident but said she planned to talk to Azarenka about it. Oh boy. The American was asked if she thought players were abusing the medical timeout system.

“No, I don’t think so. Like, there’s a certain thing in the locker room that tells you like if you take more than six a year or something that they’ll start charging you.  That’s a good rule. But the whole time I’ve been on the WTA Tour I’ve never had a medical timeout, so I don’t know how it feels.  I don’t know what they do.  I don’t even know what you say. Honestly, I don’t even know how you would call the trainer to the court.”

Stephens’ coach, David Nainkin thought otherwise. “I thought it was very unfair — cheating within the rules,” he told USA Today. “It was unsportsmanlike. I don’t think you should be able to leave the court before the opponent serves for 10 minutes for whatever reason. You’d better have something pretty good. I think there’s a gray area in the rule book that shoudn’t be allowed. End of story.”

After she had some time to gather her thoughts and, perhaps, realize there was a tsunami size wave of criticism coming her way, Azarenka told reporters in a later press conference that the medical timeout was for her rib and back and that she regrets not taking it earlier.

“I had been struggling a little bit throughout the whole match, from the second set, my back,” she said. “And it just kept getting worse. I should have, you know, called the trainer a little bit earlier before that when I got to the point that I couldn’t really breathe and had to go off court. So there was a little bit of my bad. But just a rib got locked and kept getting worse. I had to have it adjusted. I really had to go and take that medical timeout.”

Azarenka didn’t violate any clear-cut rule. She was within her rights to call a medical timeout if she felt short of breathing or was suffering from some injury that required medical treatment. But as is so often the case in tennis, it’s not about what’s written in the rulebook but “the spirit of the rule.” Calling a medical timeout because you got nervous? Laughable. Calling it to disrupt the rhythm of a match that’s slipping away from you? Bush league. Calling one to ice a rookie opponent before she’s set to serve to stay in the match? The stuff of juniors. Certainly not becoming of the world No. 1.

Yet we have to stop and think of the risk of the alternative. Here, given Azarenka’s response to questions about the medical timeout after the match it seems fairly clear that she didn’t have an injury. She had shortness of breath. I can sit here and speculate and say that shortness of breath was the result of her choking away five match points and panicking, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was a legitimate medical illness? Think of the liability involved if a player ignores those symptoms and collapses on court, as Azarenka did at the 2010 U.S. Open.

Azarenka will get blasted for this. She deserves it. It was a tough situation, but I’ve seen plenty of matches where a struggling opponent will suck up their injury for the remainder of the set and then, if they lose that set, call the trainer. Perhaps that’s an idiotically noble thing, but players earn respect in the locker room for those moves.

Azarenka may have earned a free pass this time if she didn’t have a history of players questioning her ill-timed injuries, whether it’s Agnieszka Radwanksa saying Azarenka’s questionable injuries were “not a good image for women’s tennis” or Maria Sharapova’s subtle but constant harping on her penchant for over-exaggerating  injuries. The fact is, Azarenka has never earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to her claims about her health. This was just one more incident that adds fuel to the fire.

  • Published On Jan 24, 2013
  • 27 comments
    noahr78
    noahr78

    don't know about Australia, but in the U.S. the Americans with Disabilities Act probably requires allowing a medical timeout for a panic attack, at least assuming a sport allows medical timeouts for other issues, which pro Tennis does.

    CliffDawson
    CliffDawson

    I played Pro Racquetball decades ago. And never thought I would see this type of thing in another sport( Lying, cheating, gamesmanship) I was wrong. Anytime you get a sport that an official or rules can either be stretched of broken will  continue.  I've watched a few matches in both Men's and Women's that made me sick and this was one of the worst. Stephens had momentum and probably could have pulled out the second set. Azarenka knew this and even said so immediately said as much after the match. The officials running these people should either stand up for what is right or quit and let someone with a "pair" do it better!  Golf is the only sport that you do and will call penalties on yourself

    unitcaptain11
    unitcaptain11

    Her ridiculous moaning and wailing while playing is silly too.

    WeatherMax
    WeatherMax

    During Azarenka's on-court interview immediately after the game, did anybody notice that all the time she was explaining her injury timeout the stands were whisper quiet? That may have been the first time I've seen it happen ever since they started the practice in the Australian Open. Thereafter there was just the most muted of applause, probably mostly coming from her box of supporters. And how about Azarenka suddenly pulling up clearly limping on one foot and then on the next point she's perfectly normal as if nothing happened? I suppose she's just playing mind games with herself?

     

    No matter what we all say here at this moment, ultimately it will be the courtside tennis fans who will deliver their vocal verdict on Azarenka in her finals match with Li Na--who I dare say will definitely be the overwhelming crowd favorite. Let's see if there will be more hopping about or another injury timeout...

    KeithJacobson
    KeithJacobson

    Go on, tennis world, continue to persecute Azarenka as long as you want in your disgusting manner but I refuse to join in. The overreaction to this (reminder: an AO official even stated she did not actually break a rule!!) is ludicrous. Blame the tennis establisment and its lame rules here!  But whatever. This may actually make me stop following the pro game altogether after years and years...  Damn sanctimonious tennis fans... especially social media.

    KeithJacobson
    KeithJacobson

    Why not give Sloane Stephens some grief for dissing Serena's come-on!'s after losing to Serena in Brisbane... ungraciously? Oh that's right, she's the new tour darling.  She can do anything.

    PatrickFinley
    PatrickFinley

    It strikes me that when male athletes use the rules to their advantage (just today I saw a golfer at Torrey Pines intentionally 'drop' the ball twice in such a way so as to be sure that it would roll back into the hazard, in which case he was entitled by the rules to place the ball in the most desirable place not nearer to the hole) they are clever, able tacticians, while, when a Belarussian woman does the same thing, it's an international scandal.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen Tiger and Phil hit a horrible shot and then, by exploiting the rules, getting a much better lie than they 'deserve'.   But they are given credit for their cleverness and for knowing the rules.  Never - or hardly ever - does anyone argue that the rule in question was poorly conceived or written to allow such a state of affairs.

     

    In the NBA it has been painfully obvious for decades that the top stars are protected when it comes to personal fouls.  Wilt Chamberlain NEVER fouled out of a game.  In fact I don't think he ever had to play with five fouls (it takes 6 fouls to disqualify a player).    Ticky-tack fouls are commonly called on back-up players, particularly big men,  that would never be called on the top centers and power forwards.

     

    In baseball, catchers ROUTINELY block home plate (thereby obstructing a runner trying to score) before they have received the throw from a fielder, even though doing so is illegal according to the rules.    Does anyone call them cheaters?    The 'phantom double play'  (in which the second baseman takes a toss from the shortstop after having dragged his pivot foot across the base) has been around for generations; the offenders, of course, are 'nifty fielders' not 'cheaters'.

     

    Tennistogo
    Tennistogo

    Azarenka not only is the most annoyingly squeaky cheater tennis player, but she is also a manipulative one.

    What a disappointment!!!!

    Lance has fallen out of grace for cheating... Isn't it the same case with Azarenka?

    If she sees that she will lose the match.. she fakes an injury... or like in this case she "CHOKES" (mentally, nervously??? as she stated (and I quote): "I almost had the choke of the year ...overcome this little bit of struggle...and...no way that I was going to lose the match"); Then she calls the trainer and she gets a free time out to recompose her fragile mental sportsmanship and takes 10 minutes to cool off in an air conditioned environment, while Sloane awaits out at the court side under the heat... after that lengthy delay Azarenka refocus her game to bit Sloane.

    It is shameful for the sport to have Azarenka at the #1 spot. Tennis authorities should be more observant in the compliance of tennis regulations to include a ban on disturbing squeaky sounds made to annoy not only the audience but to hinder opponents' concentration in their game.

    I care less for Azarenka as a tennis player. I am sure that millions of tennis fans agree with me.

    Bakalars Earl
    Bakalars Earl

    Azarenka should feel what a real heartattack feel like.

    What a charade!!!!!

    fortuitous_coincidence
    fortuitous_coincidence

    the pertinent question is whether the injury is imminently dangerous.  No mental problem short of psychosis puts the player at risk of immediate severe injury.  A panic attack might feel scary, but it won't hurt the player to stand there freaking out while the opponent serves aces.  Azarenka is a child, and no amount of giggling and holding tight to aging hippies will save her soul.  She needs to reassess what in this life is truly valuable.

     

    She almost certainly would have won the third set, anyway.

    straightupnow
    straightupnow

    This is one of  your more irresponsible articles.  Acts that we perceive to be "gamesmanship" abound in all sports, and tennis most certainly.  If you want to writer an unbiased article on your perceptions of gamesmanship in tennis then you'll have my ear.  This here is witch hunt material. 

     

    You imply that the MTO wasn't justifiable but then you say wait, we can't be sure.  You acknowledge she has collapsed on court before but then you say wait, players should "tough it out" and stay on the court to win respect in the locker room. 

     

     And you call it "bush league" and "the stuff of juniors" to call a medical timeout in tennis to, in your opinion, "disrupt the rhythm of the match".   Bush league??  Do you also think icing the kicker in football is bush league?  Calling a timeout in basketball when the other team is on a scoring run?  Intentionally fouling a bad free-throw shooter?  Playing keep-away in a soccer game with a one goal lead?  Those are all within the written clear cut rules, just as you acknowledge Azarenka's actions were also.  Why do you expect tennis players to be martyrs; or is it just certain tennis players.

     

     

    TasioGonzalez
    TasioGonzalez

    She played a fabulous match & tournament so far. A 10min. break shouldnt overshadow that.

    Azarenka is a player who collapsed on court retiring from a GrandSlam.

    Now playing a semi final match which she was about to win, was to much of a risk to just contiue while having breathing problems.

     

    Wrong timing YES. But when is there a right timing in tennis? Was she guaranteed to win the next game and so the match? NO. 

    Penny1
    Penny1

    I think they should, at the very least levy fines against Azarenka for this. I can't see the officials going as far as taking the entire match away from her and disqualifying her from the tournament, because it's not clear that Sloane would have won without Crazed Wombat doing that. But someone should stop this kind of thing from Azarenka, and stop her shrieking while they're at it. (I, for one, would enjoy watching a match without having to mute my tv...)

    HydeAlexander
    HydeAlexander

    I think we have to be careful here to distinguish between 'nerves' and a 'panic attack'.

     

    They are two entirely different things. Going off-court for a bout of nerves is unacceptable. On the other hand nerves don't cause pain and make it difficult to breathe. What Azarenka is describing clearly sounds like a panic attack.

     

    If it is the latter then it is no joke and certainly no tennis player would want their opponent to continue playing with what is, for all intents and purposes, an injury. I have a couple of friends who have had panic attacks and the effects they describe are debilitating to say the least.

     

    I'm sure Azarenka has had nerves plenty of times in her career and can tell the difference. We can't get carried away with the witch-hunt because if she did indeed suffer a panic attack then to call it gamesmanship and time-wasting in order to 'calm some nerves' then we would be doing a disservice to a medial issue that can strike without warning and can be quite alarming to someone who has never experienced it before.

     

    The question I think should be, not if she was cheating, but if it was indeed a full-blown panic attack because that implies some underlying mental issues that need looked at.

     

    If it was just nerves and her claims of chest pains were a cover, then that is indeed abuse of the medical timeout and therefore cheating.

    danelleh
    danelleh

    what a load of crap...  hope li na kicks her ass...   

    Stephen31
    Stephen31

    What's the story here?  Azarenka is guilty of gamesmanship?  Has anyone actually watched her matches (aka shriekfests)?  This woman lives and breathes gamesmanship.  Every aspect of her on-court conduct is questionable.

    IdaAnnaTaylor
    IdaAnnaTaylor

    LOL... good one, bobinpowerll.  Anyway, Azarenka is a disgusting cheat.  Blatant gamesmanship from her against Stephens.

    bobinpowell
    bobinpowell

    Maybe she found out her boy friend just died of leukemia.

    Penny1
    Penny1

    @tennistogo You might remember this from last summer, when Martina Navratilova who has been a long-time crusader against the shrieking that Azarenka and Sharapova does. She came back from seeking info about it, and what ITF officials told her was that they couldn't impose a sudden ban on the current pro players because it might have an adverse effect on their breathing, stamina and/or service. It would take a gradual phase-in over time, beginning with the young players at camps. They are supposedly working on something like 20 camps now, then will progress to more camps later. I believe, as Martina said at the time, that it's too small a move. Levy fines and hindrance calls against them and be done with it. I think the ITFs rationale is just stupid. They are trying to find a way to measure the decibel level of the shrieks, to see if each one is really a hindrance. At this rate, my not-yet-born grandchildren will still be hearing Azarenka's wombat screaming in their nightmares like I do now...

    shelley
    shelley

     @fortuitous_coincidence When you're having a panic attack, the very real medical symptoms are indistinguishable from actual medical problems.  They're real, and not just scary situations you can wish away.

    Badsport
    Badsport

     @HydeAlexander If every player used this as an excuse, all amateurs would be playing in the professional tour calling time out for choking and panic attacks.  This sort of behavior must stamped out for those that have invested in physical and mental conditioning to win fairly.  Martina Navratilova was absolutely right when she said that there should be no time out for poor conditioning when referring to time outs being permitted for cramping and I believe this should extend to mental conditioning.  This is their occupation - play on or default.

    Armchairquarterback
    Armchairquarterback

    Her "difficulty breathing" and "I just couldn't breathe" certainly didn't hamper her ability to shriek.  Sloane was robbed of a shifting momentum and a chance to get back in the match which Vika admitted she was choking.  Sloane took the high road and called Vika a friend in the post match interview.  Good for her but I say with friends like that who needs enemies?  The tournament/medical officials had no choice but to take her medical claim of injury as legitimate.  Vika "gamed" Sloane to her advantage to regroup and it worked because that's what the rules allow.  The rule should have never existed as written and needs to be changed.

    shelley
    shelley

     @Badsport  @HydeAlexander You've obviously never had a panic attack.  They do indeed induce symptoms of very real medical problems.

     

    Badsport
    Badsport

     @shelley  @Badsport  @HydeAlexander Yes I have - nervous anxiety and doubt - whilst playing a competitive squash match, and I lost.  But I called it choking on my own part.  My opponet freaked me out but no excuses My fault..  I never stopped the match for a medical timeout.  It's nothing short of pathetic.  There is absolutely no defense of this behaviour.  If you do not know and you obviously don't,  both Radwanska and Shrapova have called Azarenka out on this type of behavior before.  She is clearly a cheat and does not deserve the number one position as she is a poor role model for the game.